October 21, 2021

As COVID rules relax, outdoor activities beckon

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Bill McConnell, the head coach and general manager of the Cortland Crush, is shown Wednesday at Gutchess Lumber Sports Complex in Cortlandville. A year after losing most summer recreation opportunities because of the pandemic, at least some programs plan a return.

Imagine: It’s a bright, sunny day in the middle of summer and you have no plans. What are you going to do today? Catch a baseball game? Shoot some hoops at the gym? Catch a concert?

During the summer of 2020, those options mostly weren’t available.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant people had to adapt to different means of recreation, mostly outdoors and away from others, said Kenneth Cohen, an associate professor in the recreation, parks and leisure studies department at SUNY Cortland.

“There is a newfound appreciation for the opportunities right here in our backyard,” he said.

However, as the warmer weather of the spring and summer months approach, recreation programs will be coming back and looking to provide the activities that were lost, and missed, last year.

CITY PROGRAMS

Between cutting programs and cutting staff, 2020 was “probably the most challenging year in my career,” said John McNerney, the director of the Cortland Youth Bureau.

Coronavirus cost the bureau many of its programs last summer. All the adult and youth basketball leagues, a pair of lacrosse programs, a summer concert series and an annual firefighter for a day camp.

But as statewide restrictions on recreational activities have been reduced, McNerney and others plan to bring many of them back, including the firefighter for a day camp, lacrosse programs and softball leagues.

“We’re excited,” McNerney said. “We’re cautiously optimistic what we can offer this year.”

However, events that tend to have large gatherings, such as the bureau’s Easter Egg hunt, aren’t going to happen again this year, he said. In its place, the bureau has partnered with the Cortland Fire Department to do an Easter Egg delivery to residents’ homes.

Wickwire pool in Suggett Park and the beach at Yaman Park will be open this summer, but changes will be implemented, although details are still being worked out, McNerney said. They may include capacity limits and reserving time slots for use.

Other changes will include capacity limits at the city park pavilions, which will require online reservations starting April 1.

While there will be changes to programs this year, McNerney said it is important to provide people with the recreational opportunities after what the world has been through.

“There’s something out there for everybody,” he said. “If there’s a way people can return to their normal life, I think that’s important.”

NEW ADVENTURES VS. KNOWN COMFORTS

When the pandemic took hold last March and closed down spaces and events, it took a toll on people’s mental health, Cohen said.

Isolation led to increased anxiety and depression, exacerbated by having no outlets. With indoor options not available to maintain spacing, people set their eyes outside.

“We saw an extreme shift from indoor to outdoor” activity participation, he said.

This included at state parks, which in New York saw an estimated record 78 million people, the state reports.

Cohen said exercising outdoors can help: boost immunity; help with emotional and cognitive health; and help people connect with each other socially at a safe distance.

As restrictions have loosened and events are scheduled to return, Cohen said he was curious to see if interest in the outdoors will be sustained.

On one hand, he said, “There is a newfound appreciation for the opportunities right here in our backyard.” On the other, Cohen said people are “eager to get back to those things we enjoyed pre-pandemic.”

Cohen, though, said he expects more people to take part in outdoor recreational activities than before this summer.

Still, as long as people are willing to follow guidelines for activities that were canceled, Cohen expects a return to people’s favorites.

“We’ve all really felt its absence and we’re ready to get back,” he said. “Recreation is essential.”

PLAY BALL

Losing the baseball season was hard, but it paled in comparison to the greater threat the coronavirus pandemic held over people’s health, said Bill McConnell, the head coach and general manager of the Cortland Crush, a baseball team in the New York Collegiate Baseball League.

“It wasn’t pleasant at all, but we all knew there was a greater threat,” he said.

The team, in its eighth year, is looking to get back to playing this year, which will be the team’s second playing home games at Gutchess Lumber Sports Complex in Cortlandville.

“We’re very, very excited to play ball again,” McConnell said. “We look forward to bringing back baseball to the region.”

Expect some changes, he said: new food options provided by Anderson’s Farm Market in Homer; seating, capacity and other safety measures.

McConnell said by the time the Crush plays its first game on June 7, restrictions might be reduced as more people are vaccinated.

McConnell said the team’s biggest question will be determining the condition of each player. Some have had their college baseball seasons canceled. He noted players from schools in California looking for other ways to stay active along with two players from Yale University who have had to train in Houston as the Ivy League canceled all spring sports.

To compensate, the team will have 20 or 21 pitchers, up from the usual 16 to 17, along with one or two additional position players to make sure all players can be rested and prevent injuries, McConnell said.

The team also will play a few extra exhibition games for practice.

“The season is a grind,” he said as the team plays its first 17 days without a day off. “We will need the extra players to keep our players somewhat energized.”

Notable players this year are Noah Barber, a catcher from Cortland who attends Utica College, and Caleb Thompson, a pitcher from Cortland who plays for Tompkins Cortland Community College, McConnell said. Thompson has been training to play at an NCAA Division I school.

Despite a year off, McConnell said he believes his team can win the New York Collegiate Baseball League championship.

More so, he wants the team to be a source of entertainment. Events like a fireworks night and healthy lifestyle activity tips during the seventh inning of games will be a part of that.

“We’re there to be entertaining and engaging,” McConnell said.